The Man Who Was Surrounded by Idiots

Do you ever think you’re the only one making any sense? Or tried to reason with your partner with disastrous results? Do long, rambling answers drive you crazy? 

You are not alone. After a disastrous meeting with a highly successful entrepreneur, who was genuinely convinced he was ‘surrounded by idiots’, communication expert and bestselling author, Thomas Erikson dedicated himself to understanding how people function and why we often struggle to connect with certain types of people.

The result is Surrounded by Idiots, now an international phenomenon. Read an excerpt below.

I was in high school when I first noticed that I got along better with certain people rather than others. It was easy to talk to some of my friends; in any conversation, we always found the right words and everything just flowed smoothly. There were never any conflicts, and we liked one another. With other people, however, everything just went wrong. What I said fell on deaf ears, and I couldn’t understand why.

Why was speaking to some people so easy, while others were total blockheads? Since I was young, this certainly wasn’t something that kept me awake at night. However, I still remember puzzling over why some conversations flowed naturally, while others didn’t even start—no matter how I conducted myself. It was just incomprehensible. I began using different methods to test people. I tried to say the same things in similar contexts just to see what reaction I got. Sometimes it actually worked and an interesting discussion developed. On other occasions, nothing happened at all. People just stared at me as if I were from another planet, and sometimes it really felt that way.

When we’re young, we tend to think of things very simply. Because some people in my circle of friends reacted in a normal way that meant, of course, that they were automatically the good guys. And so I just assumed there was something wrong with the people who didn’t understand me. What other explanation could there possibly be? I was the same all the time! Certain people just had something wrong with them. So I simply began to avoid these weird, difficult people because I didn’t understand them. Call it the naïveté of youth if you will, but it did give rise to some amusing consequences. In later years, however, all of this changed.

Life went on with work, family, and career, and I continued to pigeonhole people into two groups—good and sensible people and all the rest, the people who didn’t seem to understand anything at all.

When I was twenty-five years old, I met with a man who was self-employed. Now in his sixties, Sture had founded his own business and built it up for many years. I was given the task of interviewing him just before a new project was to be implemented. We started talking about how things were functioning in his organization. One of the very first comments Sture made was that he was surrounded by idiots. I remember laughing at the time because I thought it was a joke. But he truly meant what he said. His face turned crimson as he explained to me that the people working in Department A were complete idiots, every single one of them. In Department B you found only fools who understood nothing at all. And he hadn’t even come to Department C yet! They were the worst of all! They were so weird that Sture couldn’t fathom how they even made it to work in the mornings.

The more I listened to him, the more I realized that there was something very odd about this story. I asked him if he really believed that he was surrounded by idiots. He glared at me and explained that very few of his employees were worth having.

Sture had no issue letting his employees know how he felt. He didn’t hesitate in the least to call anyone an idiot in front of the whole company. This meant that his employees learned to avoid him. No one dared to have one-to-one meetings with him; he never got to hear bad news because he would often shoot the messenger. At one of the offices, a warning light had even been mounted at the entrance to the building. Discreetly placed above the reception desk, the light went red when he was there and turned green when he was away.

Everyone knew about this. Not only staff but even clients would automatically cast a nervous glance at the light to find out what awaited them when they stepped over the threshold. If the light was red, some people would simply turn back at the door, deciding to come back at a more opportune time.

As we all know, when you’re young you are full of great ideas. So I asked the only question I could think of: “Who hired all these idiots?” I knew, of course, that he had hired most of them. What was worse was that Sture understood exactly what I had implied. What I implicitly asked was: Who is actually the idiot here?

Sture threw me out. Later on, I was told that what he really wanted to do was fetch a shotgun and shoot me.

This incident got me thinking. Here was a man who would soon retire. He was obviously a proficient entrepreneur, highly respected for his sound knowledge of his particular line of business. But he couldn’t handle people. He didn’t understand the most critical, complicated resource in an organization—the employees. And anyone he couldn’t understand was simply an idiot.

Copyright © 2019 by Thomas Erikson

Author picture

Thomas Erikson is a Swedish behavioral expert, active lecturer, and bestselling author. For more than twenty years he has been traveling all over Europe delivering lectures and seminars to executives and managers at a wide range of companies, including IKEA, Coca Cola, Microsoft, and Volvo.

Surrounded by Idiots has been a Swedish runaway bestseller since it was first published in 2014. It has sold over 3 million copies worldwide and been translated into 42 languages.

Photo Credit: Maria Östlin

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